In the first week of January, a Facebook page encouraging toymaker Mattel to produce a bald Barbie doll suddenly went viral.
In a matter of weeks, the page—“Beautiful and Bald Barbie! Let’s see if we can get it made
”—grew from a couple of friends with a cause to a movement of more than 100,000 people worldwide.
The call for the special-edition doll was issued to help girls with
self-esteem issues stemming from hair loss due to cancer treatments,
alopecia, or trichotillomania, as well as to help girls who have trouble
coping with their mother’s hair loss as a result of chemotherapy.
Mainstream media picked up on the story, and by Jan. 13 a Google News
search for “Bald Barbie” would generate more than 450 stories from news
outlets around the world. This was amazing news for the cause.
Far less amazing (at least not amazing in a good way) was Mattel’s response; it remained completely silent—no
statement whatsoever. The company’s tight lips forced the media to use
the company’s most recent response to people proposing new Barbie dolls:
“Mattel doesn’t accept ideas from outside sources.”
The toymaker was so absent from the social conversation that it seemed
the brand was doing zero monitoring of the Barbie community.
You snooze, you lose
The social community was vociferous in noting that Mattel had nothing to
lose and everything to gain from producing Beautiful and Bald Barbie.
Considering the company’s questionable choices with Barbie in the
past—see Tattoo Barbie
—it made sense for Mattel to be nimble and seize the day when the story broke four months ago.
It could have produced the doll to support its Mattel Children’s Hospital
, or as part of the company’s limited-edition collection. Instead, it did nothing.
Enter the competition, and proof positive of the adage that “when you
snooze, you lose.” In February, Mattel competitor MGA—maker of Bratz and
Moxie Girlz dolls—announced its new line of “True Hope” Bratz/Moxie
Girlz. The line will feature four girls and two boys, available this
June. MGA will sell its “True Hope” dolls at Toys “R” Us, donating $1
from every doll sold to City of Hope
for cancer research.
(Check out the news release here
Two weeks ago—that’s three months
after the Facebook page appeared—Mattel announced the creation of a Bald Friend of Barbie
for distribution to children’s hospitals and charities in 2013. Company
spokesman Alan Hilowitz was quick to point out that Mattel did not
create the doll in response to the Facebook page, but rather because
“they helped us realize how important this was for us to do.”
Props for your community
With social media, it’s imperative to listen to your community, to
respond, to help, and to engage. Mattel failed in all these aspects.
When the company finally did respond, it didn’t give its community
credit for a great idea.
In the three months it took Mattel to finally say “I do” to Beautiful
and Bald (Friend of) Barbie, media coverage slackened and a competitor
had claimed Barbie’s space in the world of social good. But the
community never gave up.
Mattel may ultimately reap praise for producing Bald Friend of Barbie,
but it’s important to note the toymaker ignored its community for so
long. All it needed to do was say, “We’ll do it!” when interest
exploded—in January. To ignore a brand community for three months is a
lifetime when it comes to the news cycle and the world of social media.
Mattel clearly missed the boat and, with it, a wave of positive press
and major sales. When it comes to being social, brands must be willing
to listen, engage, and react swiftly to their community. They must be
trend spotters and trend setters, and they must pounce on the next big
thing, especially when the fans who drive sales are giving you such
clear and fervent calls to action.
Mattel’s slow “We’re the company, we know what we’re doing” response has
gone the way of the dodo. Barbie fans called—and Bratz answered.
Had Mattel been timely with a positive response to the call for Bald
Barbie, it would be happily driving its pink Beach Cruiser into the
hearts, minds, and wallets of consumers. Instead, the company minimized
its opportunity to do a lot of social good and to do right by its
Consider this a cautionary tale that reinforces the need for brands to
be nimble and seize the day when consumers come knocking.
Deborah Weinstein is co-founder, partner and president of Strategic Objectives. Headquartered in Toronto, Strategic Objectives is IABC/Toronto PR Agency of the Year 2011 and 2009. Follow Deborah on Twitter @DebWeinstein. A version of this story first appeared on the agency's blog.